Boehner being Boehner

Berlusconi being Berlusconi

Those of you in the U.S.A. will wake up this morning with all ‘non-essential’ functions of the government shut down, thanks to the knuckleheads in Congress who have convinced themselves that squabbling and doing nothing is more important and more idealistically noble than the difficult and compromising task of governing. Chief knucklehead is John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Italy also had an exciting weekend in politics, as three-time ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi withdrew his ministers from cabinet and scuttled the ‘grand coalition’ government which was trying to edge Europe’s third-largest economy out of a four-year recesssion. One would have trouble imagining two more different personal and political characters being responsible for such similar folly.

Great states are first undone from within. Perhaps these two characters deserve a short entry in the canon of Plutarchian parallel biographies? Hmm…

Boehner, born in 1949, is a ‘self-made man’ who grew up working-class as one of eleven children in Cincinnati and after college, rose through the ranks of sales and management of a plastics company. He has been working his way up in Congress since 1991. He’s a patient, incremental fellow.

Berlusconi, born in 1936,  was one of three children in a middle-class Milanese family. After university, he began his empire by building apartment blocks in Milan and then got the idea to provide residents with his own television channel, which started his media empire. He entered politics in 1994 and became Prime Minister the same year. Silvio has no patience. He shoots straight for the top.

Boehner got elected to the House after defeating, in the primary, a Republican incumbent who was in the midst of an underage sex scandal. Boehner has been married for forty years and has two daughters.

Berlusconi’s third term as Prime Minister was undermined in 2010 after he was charged with relations with an underage prostitute; he was convicted this summer, but the lengthy appeals process means that nothing will happen for some time. He has been twice married, with five kids, and now has a new girlfriend, Francesca Pascale, 28, who wants to marry him.

Compare their campaign humor and understand the difference between America and Italy. Boehner’s favorite campaign joke in 2010 was: “Remember when Ronald Reagan was president. We had Bob Hope. We had Johnny Cash. Think about where we are today. We have got President Obama. But we have no hope and we have no cash.” In 2011, Berlusconi joked in public: “Did you hear the latest poll? They asked women between 20 and 30 years old if they want to make love to Berlusconi. Thirty-three percent said yes! Sixty-seven percent said, ‘Again?’ ”

Berlusconi has been found guilty of tax fraud, and has another two weeks to decide whether to serve a one-year sentence either under house arrest or doing community service. These are only two of the many charges brought against him; others include bribery, false testimony, illegal accounting, abuse of office, and mafia collusion. He has a really good set of lawyers.

Boehner has no arrest record. Boring.

Both men have really good tans.

Lookin’ good, Silvio…

Boehner as a (Roman) Republican…

Berlusconi has had plenty of plastic surgery; Boehner prefers the virtues of a look pioneered by Roman veristic portraiture.

Boehner’s net worth is about $2 million dollars (2013).

Berlusconi is estimated to have a net worth of $6.2 billion. He owns half the television spectrum in Italy, has major newspaper and publishing interests, as well as large investment companies. He also owns the soccer team AC Milan.

Boehner has honorary degrees from Xavier, Catholic University of America, and The Ohio State University.

Berlusconi has been awarded the order of ‘Knight’ by Italy, the Vatican, Poland, Norway, and Romania. Really, C’mon, Norway?

Both men are Catholic. It seems Boehner takes it a bit more seriously, though he did turn down an invite to join Joe Biden at the installation of Papa Francesco in March. Berlusconi had a tense relationship with Benedict XVI, though he met him plenty of times. Heck, in the medieval period, Berlusconi could have been Pope! But Benedict knew when to step down, and Berlusconi doesn’t. Papa Francesco (who is coming to Assisi this Friday for the festa of the Patron Saint of Italy), though he seems a refreshingly forgiving sort, isn’t likely to have much to do with Berlusconi. There’s a contrast to paint…

Boehner hates taxes. Any taxes.

Berlusconi hates to pay his own taxes.

Berlusconi played the upright bass and was a singing waiter on a cruise ship; here he is singing in French.

Boehner recently sang “Happy Birthday” to his fellow congressman’s niece, swimsuit model Kate Upton. At least it was short.

Boehner is the sort of party leader that is driven by the extreme wing of his party to do what they want. Looks like he’ll sink or swim with the Boston Harbor gang.

Berlusconi is the sort of party leader that does whatever he wants, regardless. Though this time, it seems that he might get a revolt. And on Friday, the Senate is expected to remove him from office permanently because of the tax conviction (a motive for pulling his coalition out of government in hopes of prompting new elections, it is thought). It would be fitting if his final act on the political stage was to be retired by his own creatures.

How will it all turn out? Bungle in the Washington Jungle? Bunga-Bunga? Sadly, as each has thrown a fit and taken their toys home, it’s clear that neither knows that responsible leadership means more than just getting what you want.

Lo and behold, the NY Times has editorials on both men this morning. Here they are:

Boehner editorial and Berlusconi editorial

Update: Wed, Oct. 2:


The U.S. government is still shut down, but the Italian government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta easily survived a vote of no confidence today (235 to 70), as Berlusconi backed off on his threat to scuttle the coalition. While Berlusconi has a history of remarkable comebacks, given that his eviction from the Senate is expected on Friday, this may be his last hurrah.

Letta said yesterday: “Italy needs there to be no more blackmail of the ‘do this or the government falls’ sort.” Sound familiar?

Update:  Fri, Oct. 4:


The senate committee voted 15-8 to expel Berlusconi from its ranks. Once ratified by the entire body later this month, his formal, elected political career is over, though he may well try to wield plenty of informal power. Not only that, but he has been embarrassed. For one as self-confident as Silvio Berlusconi, that’s not easy to do. But he has done it to himself.

Update: Thur, Oct. 17:

Berlusconi has decided to serve his sentence (if he ever ends up serving it, given additional delays, pending legislation, and appeals) through community service rather than house arrest. This has of course given rise to many, many creative ideas about how he might do some good.

Keeping the streets clean!

Oh no, not house arrest, please!

Boehner tried to herd his cats. They meowed a lot, went around in circles, and now they’re going to scratch him.

Of course, we also know that Boehner’s bluff failed miserably; Congress re-opened the government and raised the debt ceiling at the last moment. That was sure worth it, wasn’t it?

Berlusconi himself drove his Maserati over the cliff (at which point his passengers dove out the windows and are now thumbing a ride). Boehner, on the other hand, was at the wheel of the school-bus, but instead of going back to the bullies trying to extort lunch money from other kids and smacking them upside the head (which is what Kenny, our bus driver, used to do), he drove right where they dared him to go. Into the ditch. Whee!

Boehner says they “fought the good fight.” If that’s so, someone needs to teach him how to pick his fights.

Update: Wed, Nov. 28:

Silvio Berlusconi has formally been expelled from the Italian parliament, and is no longer a senator, though he continues to the the leader of the Forza Italia (‘Go, Italy!’) party. He wasn’t present for the humiliation of the vote, however. He was across town with his supporters, protesting the decision. He had already pulled his party’s support from the governing coalition, but a split in the ranks of the center-right meant that the government still has a majority. He isn’t going away; he just cannot play his games directly from the inside.